Recently, I encountered the idea that most books (and movies) follow the same basic plot structure. I was shocked, floored, bewildered by this fact. AND IT IS A FACT. I’ve accepted it now. I’m not sure how I never realized it before. I felt kind of stupid when I finally understood…
But as I turned the baffling idea over in my mind, attempted to think of accessible titles that defied the formula, I realized that almost every good example I could think of was a picture book. I mentioned this to a friend, and she replied, “Oh, well, sure… picture books are different. They don’t count!”
Hmm… Picture books don’t count? Why not?
I’ve been mulling over this ever since, and in a sense my friend was right—plot conventions don’t apply to a lot of picture books, because picture books are the one popular literary genre where words are allowed to do something besides tell a story in a linear fashion. Picture books are the most wild, innovative, untethered, experimental literary genre I know.
The marriage of images and text is partly to blame for this, I think. Something about the collaborative process too, perhaps—an artist and a writer challenging each other, with a common purpose but different modes. But I want to believe that the main reason picture books can be so different is that kids are so different.
At the tender age when kids first encounter picture books they are open, accepting, free-thinking. A two year old doesn’t really expect anything when she picks up a book, and so a book for a two year old can be anything. Physical comedy. Visual art. A puzzle. Books for kids can pop-up or scratch-and-sniff. They can be meta-fiction. They can speak multiple languages or intertwine multiple distinct storylines. There are almost no rules to picture books. Kids scribble in them, build forts with them. Picture books are experiential on every level you can imagine, and some you can’t.
For me, personally, the best thing about picture books is that they can play with language for its own sake. Sprung from the need for a defined narrative arc, picture books can be poetry. They can simply express an experience, an emotion. They can paint a portrait. They can describe a place, a time of day, or a moment. They can be playful or somber. They can pair spare language with intense image, and pack that word with meaning the kid will carry with them for life.
Or they can not do that. If kids don’t read them. Which brings me to my soapbox…
We are pushing children to read chapter books too soon. Maybe you’re not, but trust me, someone you know is. I do countless school visits every year, and am horrified by the number of kids who tell me they have moved on to chapter books and don’t need pictures anymore (though they never seem to mind them when I pull out a picture books). I can’t count all the parents who beam and explain that little Emma is reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten. That she doesn’t like baby books anymore. She doesn’t need pictures.
Look, I write children’s novels. I love children’s novels. And I read at about a 34th grade level. But I still read picture books to myself. I still need pictures.
I think these parents don’t realize that the chapter books they’re pushing the kids to read generally offer simpler sentence structure and easier vocabulary than the picture books they’ve “graduated” from. Never mind the visual stimulation and emotional complexity of a book that doesn’t have to follow a simple adventure arc.
But for me, the saddest part is that in abandoning their picture books, these kids are missing out on sheer play and poetry—two things they’ll have a harder and harder time finding in their lives as they get older. As they move away from these wild forms, into (if we’re lucky) one of the many chapter book series on the shelf, they’ll learn to expect the same things from a book that everyone does. They’ll rely on story. They’ll come to expect archetypes, if not stereotypes. Orphans will have their adventures and new kids will find it hard to make friends, but then make friends…
But what about a book that dwells on what lies sleeping beneath the snow? Or water singing blue? What about the whimsy of rain making applesauce? What about animals wearing clothing, rag-doll/ broom -handle wedding processions, or the moon?
I have often thought to myself that there’s a big disconnect between childhood—when almost everything is a poem—to adulthood, when people claim to “not understand” poetry. And considering all of this tonight, I feel almost certain that if people would keep reading their picture books forever, they’d enjoy poetry more. It’s the primacy of story that makes it hard for us to remember that words can do other things too…
I love story. I need story. I am addicted to story. But sometimes, for that very reason— I need something else. Not drama. Not story. Just words—just words—like water. Or rain. Or a kiss. Or sleep.